Lately I’ve been pondering the importance of joy. There are a number of reasons for this. Last week my family experienced a great joy, as three of my children received the sacrament of confirmation. This is naturally a moment of celebration for each of them as well as our family. Further, the sacrament of confirmation entails receiving the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and preeminent among these is the fruit of joy.
Beyond this contingent circumstance, joy has been a central theme, if not the central theme of the pontificate of Francis. The Pope continually proclaims joy as the most obvious and normal expression of the Christian life. For the Holy Father joy is the most noteworthy characteristic of the path to holiness. In a homily in 2013 he expressed this evocatively saying, “You are invited to join in the feast, to the joy of being saved, to the joy of being redeemed, to the joy of sharing life with Christ. This is a joy! You are called to a party!”
This is not merely a cute saying, it expresses a fundamental truth. The most profound and important truth of Christianity is that God is love. Christians are called to respond to that love by loving both God and neighbor. This is to be the most fundamental expression of our lives. And where there is no joy, there certainly is no love.
Yet, Christian joy is not merely natural cheerfulness or keeping a stiff upper lip. We are not supposed to put on a brave face and smile like an idiot no matter what tragedies might be fall us, as if we were Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide responding to every horror by blithely recalling that we are fortunate that this is still the best of all possible worlds. Neither is this spiritual joy a question of good luck, a happiness wrought from good health, money, or mere pleasure.
True Christian joy is not only compatible with the cross, but springs from the cross and nowhere else. In her Dialogue, St. Catherine of Sienna reminds her reader that it is not every suffering that purifies and has spiritual value, but only sufferings that are lovingly embraced and wanted in our acceptance of God’s will. The cross is not just to be borne no matter what, it is to be loved.
This joy is so important that St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “Anyone who desires to make progress must have spiritual joy.” Here we find the central message of Pope Francis affirmed by the Angelic Doctor. Yet, Aquinas does not leave the matter here, he goes on to draw out four characteristics of spiritual joy in the discussion of Paul from Philippians (Commentary on Phil., Ch. 4, lecture 1):
1. This joy must be about the right thing: authentic joy is directed towards the genuine good of the human person, namely God. Accordingly, it is joy about God and not rejoicing in created things. The new job, the unexpected return to health, the lottery we unexpectedly win are all fine and good, but they do not touch the deepest core of the person, and cannot ultimately be the source of our joy. If we place our hope in such things we are bound to be disappointed, for only God can fill the longing of our hearts.
2. This joy should be continuous: St. Paul tells us to “rejoice always”(1 Thes. 5:16). Aquinas tells us that this happens when our joy is not interrupted by sin. Yet, he also notes that joy is sometimes imperfect, for it can be lessened or interrupted by “temporal sadness”. When we suffer physical hardship, stress, when our loved ones suffer, we may be led to sadness. “For when a person rejoices perfectly, his joy is not interrupted, because he cares little about things that do not last.” This is not to say that the Christian is heartless and disregards such difficulties. Rather, the point is that having his or her heart rooted in God, such hardships are not isolated events. Rather, there is a broader spiritual context in which they become meaningful, which allows us to embrace the cross with joy even in the midst of great hardship.
3. This is a joy in many things: If one rejoices in God, one will be in a position to rejoice over all the goods we encounter. Why? If we rejoice in God, we will rejoice in the Incarnation, the Son of God become man. We will also rejoice over our own virtuous lives and our contemplative thought and prayer for we will take joy in our true good. Further, Aquinas reasons, if we take joy in our own good, we will be ready to rejoice in the good others attain or recieve. We will rejoice not only in the present goods we experience, but in those still to come. Hence, St. Paul says “again I will say, rejoice!”
4. This joy will be moderate: This may ring strange to contemporary ears. We tend to think that when it comes to good things, the more the better. The traditional sources of wisdom in our tradition, both Greek and Christian, know better. Virtue tends to be found in the mean between extremes. As we come to summer, we naturally think of BBQ season. The first burger is often a delight, but by the time we get to the third, fourth or fifth of the night, we don’t want to see another for a long time.
This unrestrained desire for more is one of the biggest threats to joy for us in the developed world, as Pope Francis has argued: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” As we have seen, it is quite legitimate to take joy in creation, in our spouse, our children, our satisfying job, our content home, and so forth. But, genuine joy springs from these things when they are grounded in our love for God. Taken apart from God, as ends in themselves, created things tend to saturate us and weigh us down, rather than fulfill us.
If we find that our lives are lacking joy, that we are experiencing an ongoing sadness, then it is time to take stock. We are made for happiness, not sorrow. If we are sad, particularly over time this is a sign that our priorities are out of whack and need to be adjusted. We need to ask ourselves, if we truly love God, if we truly know the depths of Christ’s love for us, how can we ever really despair?
If we want to make progress in our spiritual lives, it is critically important that we take this to heart. We must be people of joy! We have to accept the invitation to the party. There is simply no other way.